The President Who Loved to Dance

Granted, you may think of him as the man who became President under the most tragic of circumstances, one of only four times during the course of the American Presidency.

Or as the President who escalated the most unpopular war in recent memory.

President Johnson.

Or the Chief Executive who played all his chits to ensure the education, health and well-being of children living in poverty and the civil rights of all Americans regardless of race.

But he was also the Prez who loved to cut up the dance floor like none before or since him.

There was never a type of music that President Lyndon Baines Johnson shied away from: waltz, polka, samba, rhumba or even the Watusi and Frug, popular with younger people during his presidency.

All through his Presidency, inherited as Vice President on November 22, 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, extending into his own full four-year term in the 1964 election, and bowing out in the midst of re-election primaries in 1968, the tall, lumbering Texan moved gracefully when it was on the polished East Room parquet floor.

By the time, LBJ turned over the Oval Office to Richard Nixon on January 20, 1969, he was beaten, belittled and beleaguered. But in his day, he sure loved to cut a rug.

Here’s a brief sampling of President Johnson on the dance floor.

Margaret Truman dances with LBJ. He lifted her out of her box seat to get her on the dance floor – then lifted her back in.

LBJ dancing with Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos during a state visit to Asian nations.

LBJ dancing again with Imelda Marcos. October 24, 1966 (Corbis)

LBJ dancing with Muriel Humphrey, the Vice President’s wife after whom a famous 1967 car was later named.

President Johnson dances with his favorite dance partner, his wife, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson; she wasn’t as big on dancing as he was.

LBJ dances with Lynette Taylor wife of the vice-chairman of his Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities.

LBJ dancing with Cecilia Murphy, daughter of the mayor of Miami Beach, Florida.

LBJ dancing with Carol Channing.

LBJ again dancing with Lady Bird.

President Johnson cuts the rug with Princess Margaret.

As Vice President, LBJ dancing with Jackie Kennedy; she always complimented him on the way he danced.

LBJ – dancing with everybody.

And the Dancing He Inspired….

Among his two daughters, however, LBJ’s youngest, Luci Baines Johnson, inherited his love of shaking it up. Entering the White House at 16 years old, the teenager of the Sixties became popular for demonstrating current fad dances and was nicknamed “Watusi Luci” for it. Here’s a little sound and demonstration of that dance; although the song itself hit the charts in the summer of 1962, the dance itself remained popular into the first year of the LBJ Presidency.

Luci Johnson dances the Watusi with actor Steve McQueen during a Young Citizens for Johnson gathering in the summer of 1964.

Luci Baines Johnson, youngest daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, dances the “Watusi” with actor Steve McQueen at a celebrity-studded “LBJ” – style barbecue sponsored by the “Young Citizens for Johnson” in Beverly Hills, California on August 8, 1964. The President’s17-year-old daughter and her sister, Lynda, had agreed to their father’s request that they make five five personal appearances on behalf of his bid for re-election. (Corbis)

Luci Johnson dancing it up.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Press Secretary, Bill Moyers, never realized the stir it would raise when he was pictured wildly dancing the frug, or watusi, at a champagne dance—a fundraiser for the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts, held at the Smithsonian Institute. The affair was denounced on the House Floor by an enraged Congressman who said the “exhibitionist dancing” by the “mink coat set” should have taken place in a “burlesque house rather than the hallowed Smithsonian.” (Corbis)

Jerry Colonna and Bob Hope demonstrated dance steps for President Lyndon B. Johnson, from a routine they choreographed for entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam during a USO Tour they put on for them at Christmas 1968.

In July, 1966 the mod dance instructor at the Peppermint Lounge, “Killer” Joe Piro demonstrated his latest creation with his partner Olga Varvaro. he called it the “Johnson Jump” in honor of the one President of the United States who loved to dance more than any other was known to have. (Corbis)

Categories: Americana, First Families, History, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Presidents, The LBJs

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10 replies

  1. LBJ is, to me, one of the most fascinating presidents of all, and Lady Bird a very interesting woman on her own. His love of dancing humanizes him, somewhat. Although we often hear him referred to as a “very human” president because of his outsized idiosyncrasies, to me he always seems somewhat like a machine with huge aims in mind and an endless drive to see them achieved. Dancing, although I am certain he used it to court the wives of those whose help he needed, seems like the kind of pastime – “just for the fun of it” – that he didn’t really engage in. I don’t know that I’ve ever read about LBJ having any sort of real hobbies outside of politics.

    Loved the article!


    • Really astute observation there Jake – bingo. I had never thought about that. I don’t think he played cards much if at all and Mrs. J did with their daughters. He did like to rustle cattle on the LBJ Ranch but he had ranch hands who largely did that job he just poked around with them. I think you are right. He didn’t have a sport. Not a movie or TV guy. I think he was an extremely intelligent man and a compassionate one – especially the stories of him as a young teacher of Mexican-American children in San Marcos, Texas and getting so many of the New Deal parks programs going during the Depression. But dancing – he was crazy for dancing and I think that was it. I also believe he went back to smoking after the presidency and it had almost killed him when he was Senate Majority Leader and so I think the post-White House years were an especially letdown and boring for him. No political battles – and no dancing.

      • I really did start this reply with my memory of hearing LBJ cry, on one of his taped conferences w/his advisors re VietNam. He felt very badly & took responsibility for ea. young soldier who died there. The flip side of Johnson, I do agree with Jake was this powerful machine-like force that became the “czar” of Congress in his day. A bulldozer also comes to mind. He was brilliant, and worthy of a better agenda in oval office than that which was handed to him. In Jackie’s tapes, she comes across as very rejecting of JFK’s cabinet, especially the Sect’y of State. We all know she detested parts of McNamara.

        • You are correct about Jackie Kennedy’s dim view of her husband’s Secretary of State Den Rusk. While she remained a personal friend of Bob McNamara, she openly – and once, violently – confronted him about the Vietnam War and what advice he was giving LBJ. People have no idea how affected and haunted she was by the Vietnam War – and what might have been, had her husband lived. She was absolute in her belief and claim that JFK intended to withdraw ground troops after his hoped-for re-election.

  2. So far, Carl, ALL of our presidents, as presented on your web site, seem to be very colorful charactors. I have not been introduced to one boring person at the WH here. I do admit I find LBJ one of the most flamboyant we’ve had. If he had come into office under Pleasant conditions. . .it would have been one over-the-top administration! Even as tragic as his circumstances were, coming into his first term, the man just loved being “out there” and having a great time in the WH. He did love to play host and entertain people. I can still see Lady Bird, on TV, replying to a question re Lyndon’s fidelity to her. She smiled, laughed, and said “You have to understand my husband LOVED EVERYBODY, and that included women”! I loved Mrs. Johnson’s altitude there. Powerful, high-testosterine politicos are not vestal virgins and we should not get all prudish about that.

    1960’s news columnist Betty Beal wrote a wonderful memoir in which she lauded Lydon & LadyBird for giving the best parties and events of any admin., includiung the Kennedys. Betty appreciated the French ambiance and inspiring creativity, the promotion of high culture in JFK admin., but she found LBJ’s parties much more fun and joyous! (Like Betty Ford, she had mixed feellings re Jackie. We all know Jackie played hooky from WH obligations a lot. In fact, I read one bk (can’t recall which) that had her only appearing at the WH about 2days of the week, when Caroline’s Nursery School was not in session. Betty said when Jackie applied herself to a WH task, she did a great job, but she sure did seem to “goof off” lots, was how Ms. Beal summed it up. I did read some really fun memoirs and narratives of LBJ, that were written after he left WH, what a guy he was. Truly outrageous at times, like his News Conferences in the bathroom! The recent memoirs of SS agents who served LBJ did confirm his lack of modesty & kinky exhibitioni.

    Carl, I do recall laughing lots, when reading some of the LBJ memoirs back then. I haven’t tackled Caro’s huge project, but did you find the Caro work to be entertaining, or was it something of most interest to scholoras and other professionals? I was so happy, the day LBJ announced his retirement. When he died, though, and I saw pictures of him with hippy length hair in a pony tail, I thought, it was so tragic that he had to fall so hard. Considering his love of politics and being Commander in Chief, it was just so sad how empty his life was at the end. Recently, ex President Bush II, announced he would no longer be doing public work for the government. I don’t know if that was/is a good idea for him. How do you gracefully retire from a job like President of the United States? ‘W” is too young to be hiding out at his ranch, like Reagan & LBJ.

    • Susanna – I have missed your insights, observations, contributions and analysis. You contribute mightily to this website magazine – you always, always make it interesting. You know I’m of the school where Presidents, First Ladies, whoever should always be perceived with duality – not just the persona they or their enemies seek to craft of them, but what we intuit about them as human beings. In a way, public figures who are also symbols of a nation are like living art – always changing, evolving, always open to interpretation (sometimes a pair of closed eyes on a podium just means lack of sleep, not boredom of the topic being addressed or passive insult to the speaker – but there are as many interpretations as there are people). Just this evening I was saying that none of these people were all evil or all pure – and overriding everything about a President is a ruthless egotism which is necessary to winning that office. Another frequent commentator here, Jake Gariepy observed that he found it almost a relief to realize that LBJ did have at least one thing he really enjoyed as an escape from his workoholic tendencies. Of course, it was the Vietnam War which, in a partial sense, consumed him and victimized him. I’ve found that listening to the tapes of his presidency and his frustration at really not knowing who was telling the truth or advising the best course on the war seems to give us that reality none of us really like – that there is no black or white all the time. Just like those who “hate” Nixon – I always remind them that the same President who undermined the U.S. Constitution and cynically used race to consolidate the South as Republican was also the one who appointed more women to higher office, who created the EPA, who put more funding and support for the arts and humanities that the previous administrations. And, amazingly, after nearly a half century Head Start remains in place from LBJ’s War on Poverty. Yes – a lot of lives were lost and families destroyed by the Vietnam War. Some day I will write about Jackie Kennedy’s very personal but private sense of guilt about the Vietnam War but also her finally realizing what was done was done and all we could do was to take life as it was in the post-war world. I do think LBJ nearly killed himself with a stroke or heart attack at the end of his presidency and was indeed broken and haunted by unfinished business. And yet, it was Lady Bird who then really led him by the hand into their new life in Austin and tried to engage him in environmental and urban renewal projects there. As for former President W. Bush, I think that once he has felt assured that his presidential library and museum is up and running and he’s established a solid foundation to help perpetuate it, that he may find he will return to the arena of public work, if not in partisan politics. It will be most interesting to see how the entire Middle East evolves after the 2011 spring movements, most certainly affected, if not set in motion, by W. war in Iraq.

  3. Great piece as always Carl!

    I believe that politics was his hobby as well as his vocation and that there were always more important matters running around in his head to waste time with frivolity. He rarely golfed, and when he did it was just a vehicle to conduct business with whomever he was playing with.
    Aside from a little horseback riding, he didn’t engage in idle recreation. It bored him and he probably felt that it was a waste of precious time. He would often comment that his male ancestors died young, and I believe that he wanted to squeeze every drop out of life before he ran out of time.
    He hunted a little at the LBJ Ranch and enjoyed driving around the property in his Lincoln convertible. He used the swimming pool at the ranch some, but not so much for exercise. When he was in the pool he would more than likely be standing in the water conducting business on the telephone rather than swimming laps. The Johnsons owned a couple of motorboats and a lake house near the ranch and occasionally he would zip around Lake LBJ or Lake Austin (to see him on the boat, check out the Lady Bird’s home movies: at time code 6:33)
    He was correct about his predictions of a short life. Once he returned to the ranch he did indeed pick up smoking again, grew his hair long and drove Dale Malechek, his ranch foreman, crazy with his micromanaging the day-to-day details of the ranch’s operation. He died at 64 just four years and two days after leaving the White House.

    • And amazing response Sam – you have no idea how much not only I appreciate someone like yourself sharing information in such detail as is clearly also appreciated by so many readers here who are really interested in understanding the human beings whom most of us are taught about merely as mythic or caricatured figures.

      You know, until you just wrote that – ’64’ – I had really forgotten just how young LBJ was when he died. I try hard not to let my own personal preferences come through the pieces but I must say that I really rather enjoy LBJ if only because he was so specifically LBJ. He had no time to try and behave other than the way he did, giving into his quirks and idiosyncrasies.

      I think that perhaps one of the most engaging and fascinating periods of American and World History is the mid-20th century, the post-war era through…the post-war era, meaning 1945 to 1975. I know that the cellphone and Internet changed the world from 1995 to 2005, but I think the larger sea change came at that time with television and video capabilities, also the US flush with a boom economy, creating this unheard of concept called discretionary income. So many hundreds of thousands have families producing their first member to obtain a higher education, so many families finally feeling some sense of hope of breaking generations of poverty or degradation. And so many people who existed in vacuums or as invisible people who had been set into a role based on their gender, sexual preference, race or socioeconomic levels were organized in a way that labor had been a half-century earlier, and focused enough to provoke change in, at least, legally, their civic equality. And of course the capitalism and consumerism which all drove it. Yet one forgets two interesting facts and dates about all this – and why today is so different from them, yet those seeds of the changes we live with now were sown then. Number one – it is not until 1959 that American Express issues the first charge cards – in tin – and a whole new perception of buying, spending, advertising and selling begins – before that people saved cash to buy a car! or they bought on a store “account,” but had to keep it clear after a certain point. The other turning point is 1971 when the US’s own oil production peaked out and we had to begin pursuing oil outside of our borders. These matters start small but became insidious and they affect us today. I see LBJ as straddling those two eras – rising into power during the post-war boom but coming to power as it begins to change forever and thus somehow falling behind once the war got so bloody and so horrific. Jackie Kennedy always said it was the Vietnam War – and the fact that people could then see it in color at dinner time, all the carnage – that mainstreamed violence into US culture. I think she was slightly younger enough than LBJ and grasped it more fully than he or Nixon or JFK would have. I don’t even think that Nixon fully understood how strong the anti-war movement had become or how the days of old-school FDR omnipotent power were ending. I see LBJ, Nixon and JFK as really all being from the same generational mindset and handling things with a worldview that began to shift in the latter Vietnam era. And of course the media, the media, the media accelerated it all.

      Meanwhile, lastly – I have really enjoyed watching Mrs. Johnson’s home movies – though I have not gotten through all of them yet, but hope to eventually integrate some into future stories here. I think she had a second life once the shock of his death had been processed. She came into her fullest capacities. I think that she really had never a dull moment being married to him – and I do feel that she strongly loved him and accepted him for all his faults because she also believed in his courage on civil rights and changing the South. He even said, well I may do in the Democratic Party forever in the South by pushing for this, but it is the right thing to do – and that’s what one seeks power for.

      Thanks again – see what you provoked?

  4. Thanks for your generous response, Carl. The name “Dean Rusk” flew out of my defective memory bank, it was so widely recognized back in the day. I also recall the anecdote of Jackie punching McNamara out, at one of her own parties! Just got done w/the bk. portion of her Oral Hx WH project. Very frustrating & disapointing read. I hope I can stay awake during the audio segment! Don’t know why folks were so surprised by her. She was, like we all are, creatures of the time we are born in. She also had acess to info on people, the likes of which we can’t imagine. She really was a policy wonk, is what I got of bk. I expected to hear more about traditional 1st Lady duties, but that is not what she talked about.

    • You really, really “get it” S. you are so right and it is so subtle in those tapes – her political astuteness and power of observation and gentle pushing of her own ideas and presence into those political scenarios – like asking JFK the details about the Bay of Pigs when he got the phone call in their bedroom late at night. I think her perception of history as she had studied it as a younger person was always about how ego and personality of a head of state or political person always, inevitably comes into play even on economic policy, when one is dealing strictly in black and white numbers. The power of negotiating, manipulation, the compromises and concessions hammered out between personalities is what fascinated her. If you ever hear the oral history interview she did for the LBJ Library – very, very similar to these tapes released last September – you will really hear her own high regard and curiosity about LBJ and his use of power, which was independently formed by their interactions once she had learned to develop them beyond the tensions she saw between him and her brother-in-law Robert kennedy.

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